What Makes a Good Book Review?
Some people figure if they've read a book that their opinions matter and they write reviews for other readers to persuade or dissuade them from reading the book. However, if you read through a number of these reviews, you’ll discover that not all things looking like chocolate are, indeed, tasteful. A good review means a review with helpful intent, not necessarily “good” in the sense of five stars.
With Goodreads and Amazon both displaying reviews around the internet, more and more authors depend on these to get ahead, yet it seems the reviews are losing their validity due to lack of knowledge of the reviewers. Fewer readers use reviews in making decisions due to bogus reviews and reviews written by amateurs.
Writing a professional review begins with self-examination.
Huh? How did this get in there? You just read the thing and now you want to spew about it. But honestly, you need to ask yourself why. Writers are not programmed machinery and their livelihoods depend upon the sales from their books. Many spend thousands of dollars and live hand-to-mouth bringing their very best work to you. So you need to ask yourself: Am I so small and mean that I want to destroy this author just because her opinion is different than mine? Did I truly love this book and where it took me, and want to share the joy with the world? Was it just a so-so book that would be good on a plane, but I probably would choose something else if I had to do it over again? If you received the book for free, you may be more cavalier in your criticism than if you had paid for it, subconsciously thinking it doesn’t have as much value as one you purchased.
As is written in the temple at Delphi: Know Thyself. To write a good review, you must examine your own motives, first.
A professional review is not a book report.
We all had to do these in elementary school. It’s like a mini synopsis that tells all the high points and low points in the book, and it also includes whether or not you liked the book and why. It may contain some or all the characters and plot turns. It gives away the book. Giving away the meaningful points of the book is called revealing “spoilers” as it spoils the book for those who read the review. A professional review does not contain “spoilers,” but if it must (to make a salient point), a warning of “spoiler alert” precedes the spoiler to allow the reader to decide if he wants to continue reading the review. Skilled reviewers will be able to review the book without using spoilers because skilled reviewers are most often skilled writers.
A professional review is not a critique of every error.
Some “reviewers” lack self esteem and think the way to build themselves up is to tear down the author or style of writing. The book may only have four typos, but these reviewers will be sure to mention them. The book may start slow, but without understanding why, the reviewer will underscore this with the intent of slashing down the author’s work. Know this, there is not a book on the market without typos or writing styles that do not appeal to all. To mention these, to focus on these, just means you read the book looking for reasons to tear it down, rather than approaching the book (and the author) as a friend with whom you intend to go on an adventure.
This is not to say that if the author failed to have the book edited or doesn’t have a basic understanding of grammar that s/he shouldn’t be called out on this. I’m talking nit-picking here. And it goes to the first item above: what is your intent?
A professional review is not a beta reading exercise.
One way to earn brownie points (which are chocolate) with an author is to let him or her know when you have spotted something in the text that might be embarrassing. I recall one time a manuscript got away from me where the word processor’s spell check had replaced a critical word with something unseemly. Yikes! A good reviewer (and friend to the author) would let the author know right away, and not embarrass the author by broadcasting it on the internet. Besides, as soon as it becomes known, the author will change it, then the reviewer will look like an idiot for mentioning something that is no longer there.
Some reviewers, however, write like they are providing feedback for a beta read. This means they are providing criticizing details to the author to allow him/her to “fix” the book. By the time the book is on the market, the reader should be reading with the intent of enjoying the story. Most readers will allow minor typos, little issues of style or grammar to pass unnoticed, as long as they enjoy the story. This is the grown up approach.
A professional review is not nasty.
Professional reviewers like to read and they recognize that authors are their friends. The authors, after all, are those who struggle with producing the best works they can for the readers’ enjoyment. A professional reviewer approaches every review with the knowledge that the number of stars given to a book helps or hinders the author’s chance of being seen by the big distribution houses. A true pro will not, out of spite, give a one-star review to bolster his or her own ego, attack a competitor, or try to destroy a reputation. We all knew kids like this in school. Many of these reviewers don’t even read the book. They’ll download it when it’s free so it shows “verified purchase” and then make stuff up.
If you are an author and write in a similar genre, be very careful that your own envy or fears are not what is driving your review pen.
So those are some things a professional reviewer is not. What should a reviewer be, then?
How to write a good review
Again, examine yourself. Did you enjoy the story and for the most part the way it was written? If so, say so. Are you a nit-picky person who couldn’t get past a single misplaced comma? If so, say that you are nit-picky, but that thing stuck with you—or leave it out of your review, recognizing the flaw is in you, not so much the book. Were there some issues with the book that made it unreadable, such as numerous misspelled words, grammatical errors, or lack of editing? Say so. In other words, know the difference between your own hang ups and issues with the book. And by all means, if you are going to stoop to criticizing a typo in a book, don’t use double parentheses incorrectly in your statement.
In structuring your review, look to yourself first. "I enjoyed this book because..." If you must say something negative, couch it in a positive and helpful manner, and back it up with substance. "Between chapters seven and eight a section seemed to be omitted. I might have missed something, but suddenly there was a new character and I never found out where he came from."
Reviews are subjective. Don't try to be an English professor or authoritarian. This is about what you did or did not like about the book as a reader. If you intend to become a professional reviewer, people will not ask you to review their books if you are a meat grinder. Others will mark whether or not they found your reviews helpful, and too many negative votes for you will reduce your status as a reviewer.
A good book review enlightens readers that follow and helps them make a decision to purchase the book (or not). That’s a lot of power you’re wielding, there. Your review should be honest and thoughtful. Be a friend to the author and to yourself. You should be able to look the author in the eye afterward knowing you did your best to write a Zen-like, egoless review.